Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Shirley Cornelius

Shirley Cornelius turned in her letter of resignation to the Harris County District Attorney's Office on Wednesday.

In light of the massive exodus of long term prosecutors that has occurred over the past year and eight months, facially, it would seem that Shirley's resignation was no more nor less significant than those who have resigned before her (or the ones who will be resigning in the months to come). But a closer look at Shirley's departure is actually very telling on many levels about the Pat Lykos administration and the way they treat their employees.

Shirley leaves after a 27 year career with the District Attorney's Office that began under Johnny Holmes. Both of her brothers, Skip and Terry had served distinguished careers with the Office and are now highly respected members of the Defense Bar. Working for the D.A.'s Office was something of a Family Tradition for the Cornelius family, and they all did their family name proud during their tenure.

Most people know that.

What most people might not know is that during the fifth year of her career, Shirley's 10-month old son was diagnosed with static encephalopathy, which is permanent brain damage. As he grew older, her son's health problems grew to include Autism and Mental Retardation.

At that time, Mr. Holmes was the District Attorney, and he made sure that the Office worked with Shirley and her family to do everything that they could to help. Shirley had to meet the challenging needs of getting her son ready for his school, and Mr. Holmes approved her for "flex time", which allowed her to work from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

It was a Reasonable Accommodation and the right thing to do. And it was something that continued for Shirley for the remainder of Mr. Holmes' tenure, into the Rosenthal Administration, and even under interim D.A. Ken Magidson. It even continued under the Lykos Administration until May 17th of this year.

And on May 17th, under the Lykos Administration, the Office let go of its Moral Conscience when it came to how it treats its employees. And keep in mind, this comes from the same District Attorney who has done this and this (oh, and this) to her employees.

What Lykos and the Gang Who Couldn't Shoot Straight did to Shirley Cornelius was much worse.

On May 17th, Shirley was transferred to the Truancy Division, and notified that she would no longer be allowed the 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. accommodation. She was told that she would need to work the 8 to 5 schedule like everyone else. Keep in mind, Shirley still has to care for her now-22 year old son, who still has all of the difficulties that he has always had. Even the most minimal of tasks such as getting dressed and brushing teeth are things that she has to do for him.

To add insult to injury, over the Memorial Day weekend, Shirley spent it at the office, moving into the office for her new Truancy position, and learning how to enter data on the cases she would be handling. This type of work has always always always been approved for "Comp Time" in years past, as it is outside regular business hours and something that you must do for your job.

Rightfully so, Shirley filled out her time sheet and listed the hours she spent moving her office and doing the data entry as Comp Time. She clearly and accurately listed the hours she had spent.

A few days later, Shirley was informed by her supervisor that Lykos' right-hand woman, Hannah Chow had refused to approve Shirley's comp time hours.

Now, keep in mind what a steaming pile of B.S. it is that Hannah Chow is arbitrarily deciding to not approve comp time after it has already been worked. When questioned about the decision, Chow brushed off the insanity of her decision with a simple "we do it all the time" and stated that Shirley would not be allowed to earn any comp time at all.

Shirley took the news with class and chose not to argue with Chow's unilateral decision, and that would have been the end of the story, if Lykos and Crew had not tried to push the issue further.

Chow sent notice that she wanted her to change her timesheet to reflect that she had not ever actually earned the comp hours in the first place.

Here's where things get a little interesting.

You see, since Assistant District Attorneys work for the Government, that kinda sorta makes their timesheet a Government Document. If you think that government employees have been filed on for altering their time sheets before, you would be 100% correct. It's a little felony offense that we like to call Tampering with a Government Document. Don't believe me? Ask former-Justice of the Peace Mark Fury.

Shirley refused to alter her time sheet for that very reason and was told if she wanted to get her paycheck, then she better turn in her revised time sheet. She stood her ground and told her supervisor that she would not be revising her time sheet until someone explained to her how she could do so legally.

The team of geniuses that comprise the Gang Who Couldn't Shoot Straight had no response. Ultimately, they had no choice but to accept her time sheet as is. She stood her ground. (NOTE: to any other ADAs who have been placed in a similar situation by the Administration, you might want to keep Shirley's story in mind.)

So, after having the Pat Lykos Administration take away her reasonable accommodation to care for her son, and then encourage her to commit a felony, Shirley Cornelius finally turned in her letter of resignation on August 25th.

Her last (official) day as a Harris County employee was today, August 31st.

Her 27th anniversary with the Office.


Um, did he escape?

One of the more interesting aspects of being a defense attorney is when you finally talk yourself into walking through the grueling Houston heat to actually walk over to the Harris County Jail to see a client, only to be told that he or she isn't there.

Now, keep in mind that going to the jail is really one of the most unpleasant experiences of being a defense attorney. The parking is bad. You have to go through security. The place smells. You have to wait for what seems like forever to have your client brought to the booth. You have to scream to be able to be heard between the partition. I'll usually tell my clients very early on that I'll come to the jail when we have something that we need to discuss about their case, but not just to hang out.

As it turns out, jail isn't much fun. Who knew?

But I digress.

When an attorney actually gets themselves motivated to hike over to either 701 N. San Jacinto or 1200 Baker Street, the one expectation that we have is that the client actually be there.

Nowadays, however, that's not a given.

Harris County has been shipping our clients off to other counties to ease overcrowding. That, in and of itself, is not particularly newsworthy. The County has to pay other counties to ease the overflow of the inmate population. I get that.

My issue is which lucky inmates they are sending on a vacation to places like Newton County.

Because where I'm running into the "missing client" scenario case the most often is on those clients who are actually set for trial.

And that makes getting ready for trial to be a rather ginormous pain in the keister. Prior to a case I had set for trial in Judge Marc Carter's court a few months ago, I had never even heard of Newton County. So, when I got up early one Saturday morning to go talk to my client at the jail, I was rather surprised to find out that he wasn't there that morning.

After learning where he was, I immediately came back to my office and wrote him a letter telling him I would try to get him back here as soon as possible, and then I went to talk to Judge Carter.

Judge Carter was great. He immediately had his bailiff's call and put in the order to have my guy sent back to Harris County. We had to put an additional setting in the court to get him brought to court, but that was okay. My guy arrived back in the 228th three weeks later (that's the fastest they said they could get him).

I talked to him in court and asked him if he had gotten the letter I had sent him. He hadn't. I told him I would come talk to him about his case later in the week.

And guess what happened when I did!

Yep, he was back in Newton County again.

Now, I am sympathetic to the fact that some inmates need to get shipped out to make room, but I'm concerned that the Sheriff's Office is basing it solely on the time between resets when selecting who gets to go out of county. Since trial settings are generally set off for several months, it would, at first glance, seem like those cases are the prime ones to ship out.

But that is causing a big problem with those of us that need to have access to our clients to get ready for trial. Quite frankly, the defendants who are set for trial are the last people that should be shipped out. As defenses get prepared, there needs to be an open line of communication between the attorney and the client.

You can't get ready for trial without talking to your client. Period. End of story.

So, my suggestion for HCSO? Ship only your folks that are actually serving county time sentences over there. Their cases are done and they don't need to meet with their attorneys. If you are doing that and you are still overcrowded, meet with the judges and find some way of flagging cases that are okay to send off for periods of a time.

I don't care what you do, but there has to be a better way of doing it than the way it is currently done.

And, if you don't mind bringing back my client set for trial in the 182nd, I'd really appreciate that too.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Marc Brown takes the Bench

Big Congratulations to Marc Brown who took the bench in the 180th District Court today. I wasn't at the CJC today for the swearing in ceremony, but I was there in spirit.

I know Judge Brown is going to do a great job on the bench, and I look forward to trying cases in front of him for many years to come!

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Houston Press Poll

As one of the commenters pointed out below, the new poll is out for the Houston Press Best of the Bayou City. You can vote on your favorite on everything, including blog.

So go vote either for me or against this blog, but vote. It's kind of fun.

You can get there by clicking here.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

KHOU's Take on the CJC Mess

KHOU's Christine Haas did a news piece on the crowds at the CJC that has some good footage of what it looks like.

You can view it by clicking here.

For those of you who would say that I posted the link because I'm in the story . . . well, you're probably right for the most part. See if you can spot the part in the story where I start laughing because Womble is taunting me off camera.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Action on the Elevators?

There's an article in today's Chronicle by Brian Rogers about the condition of the CJC and how poorly constructed it is.

The accompanying photograph shows the line outside the CJC and the article is entitled "The Long Line of the Law", which I have to admit is a pretty good title.

The article itself is hopeful since it looks like somebody might finally be taking he complaints about the building and safety seriously for a change.

Of course, it wouldn't be a Chronicle article without first thanking Pat Lykos for her merciful bounty that she bestows upon us all. Lykos, who was clearly the first person to discover that there might be a problem with the CJC and its elevators some time last week, notes the CJC is "the most poorly designed criminal justice center in the United States of America."

Funny, I was just saying that about her upper-Administration.

Sorry, that one was just too easy to pass up.

The article goes on to address problems that those of us who are in the building every day are all too familiar with. The difference with this article, however, is that it addresses some possible solutions that are coming at us pretty quickly. These include:

-starting Monday (per the article), Defendants in the Misdemeanor courts will no longer have to go by Pre-Trial Services on the 12th floor. (NOTE: for those of you all who aren't familiar with the CJC, just trust me that this will actually help. Explaining why would just take too long.)

-they are talking about stretching out the length of time between resets. (NOTE: Gee, wish one of us had thought of that idea.)

-an agreement between the judges that jury panels of over 60 people aren't going to be brought over until after 10 a.m. (letting the docket settle in).

and

-renovating the first floor to allow defendants to check in, pay fees and get drug tests in the same area.

These are all great ideas, praise Patsy.

Here's an idea that I was thinking about, too -- remove the first set of exterior doors that lead to the hallway where the jury rooms and judges' chambers are.

That would give everyone access to the stairwells in the corners and would be especially helpful for attorneys who are having to move from floor to floor on their cases. The downside would be that the jury room doors would be less "zoned off", from the general public, but that doesn't jeopardize their safety or the integrity of their verdicts.

Just a thought.

You may now resume your regularly scheduled Sunday morning.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Dude, Where's My Prosecutor?

Defense attorneys and accused citizens on the docket in the District Courts today (Friday, August 20th) shouldn't be expecting to get too much done on their cases.

Lykos and the Gang decided to have a mandatory CLE (that's Continuing Legal Education) this morning for all Felony Chiefs and Twos. That leaves the Three Man in charge of the District Courts all by his or her lonesome self.

Don't be looking for the Threes to be cutting any awesome deals this morning.

Once again, Lykos and crew does something I just don't get. I mean, it isn't the end of the world or anything, but is it really a good idea to be doing mandatory CLEs in the middle of a regular docket? You virtually guarantee that nobody is going to be able to get anything done on their cases, and you are wasting time and money.

Today's topic for the mandatory CLE for the prosecutors is prosecuting Capital Murder cases. At least that's a good topic.

The last time Lykos called everybody out of docket for a mandatory CLE was for this Moment of Awesomeness.

Friday, August 13, 2010

A Legend of Law Enforcement Passes Away

I was saddened to learn this morning of the passing of one my childhood heroes, former-FBI Agent, Brazos County District Attorney's Investigator, and head of the Texas A&M Police Department, Bob Wiatt. The article about him in my hometown paper can be found here and the Chronicle's article here.

To say that Mr. Wiatt (I could never actually get to the point of feeling myself worthy to call him by his first name) had a legendary career
would be a massive massive understatement.

As a rookie FBI Agent, one of his first cases was doing some of the legwork on the Kennedy Assassination. He later went on to work on the murders of three Civil Rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi that was more commonly known as the Mississippi Burning case, and he was there when they discovered the workers' buried car.

In 1969, he assisted in the rescue of Texas DPS Trooper Kenneth Crone, who had been kidnapped by Robert Dent and Ila Fae Holiday. He and the local sheriff both fatally wounded Dent during the rescue. The incident was later the basis of Steven Sielberg's first movie, The Sugarland Express. Goldie Hawn played Ila Fae.

During the 1974 Huntsville Prison Riots led by Fred Gomez Carrasco, he was brought in at the request of the Governor and helped break up the riots, getting himself shot in the process. Harris County's own Bert Graham would become the special prosecutor on the surviving inmates who had committed capital murder during the riots.

When I first met him, I was just a kid, and I idolized him. He knew that, and I think it amused him.

Some kids worshipped NFL or MLB players. I worshipped a retired-FBI agent.

When I was in college, he let me interview him for a history paper about his career in law enforcement, and it was probably two of the most interesting hours I ever spent. I think I still have the micro-cassette recording of it in my lockbox.

He was an amazing man who had an amazing career. I'm glad that I had the opportunity to know him.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Reasonable Doubt - 8/12/10

Please join us for tonight's Reasonable Doubt, where our guest will be Bob Wicoff.

Bob is going to talk to us about the mechanics that go behind getting an incarcerated defendant exonerated, and his experiences over the past year as he has devoted his time to undoing wrongful convictions.

I'm really excited to have Bob as a guest, and we look forward to your phone calls.

As always, you can catch it here on live streaming video tonight at 8 p.m.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Legal History

There were two great articles in the Chronicle this morning about the legal history of Texas that I found to be really interesting. I hope you will, too.

In the Opinions section, Baker and Botts' Bill Kroger, who has been appointed to co-chair the Texas Supreme Court's Historical Records Task Force talks about the efforts being made to preserve historical documents from the judicial system that date all the way back to the days of Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin. You can read his post here.

And although you don't read this statement much on this blog: Rick Casey wrote a great column this morning on the importance of preserving Texas history and how we're losing that battle to time, the elements, and Ebay.

If you're interested in the history of the legal system, not to mention the Great State of Texas, these are really good articles and good causes that are worth your time.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Piling On

As prosecutors continue to turn in their Two Weeks' Notice and the county-wide Hiring Freeze remains in place, it has gotten to be a relatively bad time to be a prosecutor over at the Harris County District Attorney's Office.

The manpower shortage has resulted in a virtual log-jam of prosecutors who are getting stuck in the same spots for excessive amounts of time. As I've mentioned before, Felony Threes are some of the most overworked lawyers in the legal profession. Back in the Olden Days when I was a prosecutor (yeah, I know I'm starting to sound like Grandpa Walton), a typical first time stint as a Felony Three lasted right around six months.

Now there are Felony Threes approaching a year in their respective District Court. I can't even begin to imagine the burnout they are feeling. One would hope that Lykos and the Gang would start rotating these folks back and forth with their Misdemeanor Chiefs.

You can do that, ya know, guys? I understand if you can't be doing promotions with the budget crunch, but there is nothing wrong with people being Misdemeanor Chiefs and Felony Threes more than once.

But, apparently, alleviating the workload isn't exactly the most pressing issue on the Administration's mind these days.

About a week or so ago, the Edict came down that prosecutors were to no longer abandon enhancements without a valid legal reason.

Well, that's cute. The same office that created Pre-Trial Diversion for DWIs and decided to stop filing Crack Pipe cases has suddenly decided to get tough on crime.

Explaining how enhancements work to the non-lawyer is tricky and complicated. The short version is that if a person has been to prison and/or jail prior to their current charge, the record of the old convictions can be used to "boost" their current charge to a higher level.

For example, a 3rd Degree (normally 2 to 10 year punishment range) can be "enhanced" to a 2nd Degree (2 to 20 year punishment range) if proof is made of a prior enhancement (AKA trip to the penitentiary). If a person with a 3rd Degree has two prior pen trips, their enhancements can change their punishment range to 25 years to Life. The terminology is that person is a "True Habitual", which is Texas' (sort of) equivalent to a "Three Strikes" Rule.

Enhancements are important. I don't dispute that.

But they can also cause a very unjust result if prosecutors aren't given the discretion to "abandon" them (in other words, disregard the enhancements to get to a more appropriate punishment range).

For example, let's say that we a Defendant who back in 1969 served two years in prison for cocaine, and then served another two years in 1972 for a Burglary of a Motor Vehicle (which isn't even a felony anymore). Now, let's say that after 37 years of sobriety, he relapses and gets caught with 1.1 grams of cocaine (a third degree felony).

That guy is looking at spending a minimum of 25 years in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Now, I'm sure that there are plenty of folks who read this blog that would think that's fair, but I don't. And no, I didn't think it was fair back when I was a prosecutor, either.

Now, although he or she may not have a "legal" reason to do so, a prosecutor has the power to "abandon an enhancement", and take the punishment range back down to 2 to 20 years. He could then make a plea offer of 2 years to the Accused. (Hell, if he was feeling really generous, he could even knock it down to State Jail or County Time).

But under the new Lykos Rule, no such flexibility exists for her prosecutors. They can now get in trouble if they plead our theoretical Defendant to less than 25 years TDCJ without a legal reason.

So, what's the fallout from this new rule?

Well, more overworked prosecutors who are going to have to be getting ready for trial on cases that could have easily been worked out if the enhancements were abandoned. That's one thing.

The other thing is that Lykos is showing a complete lack of faith in her prosecutors to do their jobs with the discretion to be compassionate when the situation calls for it.

That's the part that ticks me off, actually. All of her prosecutors have courtroom experience that she'll never have, and she's taken away their ability to use their discretion.

That's ridiculous.

Look, Gang, I know y'all enjoy circling your wagons and believing that only your "Leadership Team" knows what it is doing, but you are really screwing the pooch, here. You've got great prosecutors who know what they are doing down in the trenches. If you've got a prosecutor who is "giving away the farm" on serious cases to avoid trial, then deal with him or her individually.

This policy is ridiculous and needs to be rescinded for the sake of Justice.

And the sake of the poor Felony Threes who are about to collapse under the strain of their jobs already.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Reasonable Doubt - 8/5/10

As new co-host (riding shotgun with Todd DuPont) for Reasonable Doubt, I'm going to start posting program announcements on the blog for those of you who would like to bypass what NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, and the Scrapbooking Network have offer on a Thursday night and watch a little cable access instead.

Thursday's show (8/5/10) will feature the long awaited return to show business of Will Womble, who'll be talking about starting up a new practice (amongst other things).

You can tune in to live streaming video of the show tomorrow at 8 p.m. by clicking here.

They aren't THAT Stupid . . . are they?

Interesting story here on KHOU.com about the mother of a sexual assault of a child victim who found herself charged with Failure to Report Child Abuse after criticizing the handling of her daughter's case.

Her allegation is that it was retaliation.

I can't imagine Lykos and the Gang being quite so stupid as to charge her just for that.

Or can I?

Reception for Don Smyth

Today there will be a reception honoring Don Smyth as he retires from the Harris County District Attorney's Office.

It will be held from 1:30 to 3:30 on the 7th floor of the CJC.

Come wish Don well in his future career, and thank him for the 33 years of public service that he has given Harris County.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A New Judge in Town

Big congratulations to Marc Brown who was named the acting Judge of the 180th District Court today, subject to confirmation.

Marc, um, I mean, soon-to-be-Judge Brown will be filling the unexpired term of Judge Debbie Stricklin who stepped down in July. The date he will actually assume the bench will be announced once he is able to wrap up his job with the District Attorney's Office.

I couldn't be more excited to see such a well-qualified Judge taking the Bench. He's got the brains, the work ethic, and the compassion to be a phenomenal judge.

Here's to hoping that the unexpired term is just a preview to many more terms on the Bench to come!

Congratulations, Marc!